“Survival of the Fattest” in Rentier States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 188-190:

A governor of one of Nigeria’s thirty-six states is effectively president of his own fiefdom. He has immunity from prosecution and controls the state security budget. The chairman of each of the 774 local governments is answerable to the state governor. To win a presidential primary a candidate needs two-thirds of the states to back him. That backing is in the gift of the governors. The Governors’ Forum is perhaps the most potent gathering in the land. Only about half of Nigeria’s oil revenues are allocated to the federal government. A fifth goes to the local governments. The governors control the quarter of oil revenues that goes to the states.

Oil-producing states receive an additional 13 percent share of Nigeria’s oil income before it is divided between the tiers of government. The state houses of the Niger Delta are powerful pistons of the looting machine. When he agreed to meet me in late 2010, Timipre Sylva had succeeded Goodluck Jonathan as governor of Bayelsa, one of the Delta’s three main states. I had hoped to interview him at Gloryland, the gubernatorial palace set well apart from the shacks that house his constituents. Instead, I was summoned to the penthouse suite of a five-star hotel in Lagos, where Sylva was staying with his entourage during a visit to the commercial capital.

A tall and intelligent man, Sylva was under pressure. Politics in the Niger Delta is unremittingly volatile. Gunmen drift between the militias of MEND, crime gangs, and squads of political thugs that freelance for competing aspirants to power. As Sylva’s rivals sought to force him from office, loyalists were exchanging tit-for-tat attacks with his enemies. Relations with Jonathan, recently elevated to the presidential palace by Yar’Adua’s death, had soured. Little wonder, I suggested, that others coveted his job: his immediate predecessor had found himself president and the one before had siphoned off so much cash that he, like Joshua Dariye and James Ibori, the former governors of Plateau and Delta States, had snapped up enough assets abroad to earn the attention of the British police.

Sylva accepted that there had been widespread corruption among the governors. But he was, he pleaded, just a cog in a patronage system not of his making. “If a chief walks into my office, he expects me to take care of his problems because that is what the military used to do,” Sylva said. “That’s what he’s used to. If I don’t, I’ve got a very big political enemy.”

So you have to “settle” them, I suggested, using the Nigerian term for the dispensing of cash.

“Yes. And you will read that as corruption. But me, I probably will read that as political survival, because I have to survive before I become incorruptible.”

“And you use public funds to do that?” I asked.

“What does he expect me to do? I don’t have that kind of money; the kind of money he’s expecting. Even if I have it privately, I won’t do that with it. And he’s coming to me because I’m governor. If, for example, the big chief comes, and he has to go for a medical check, it shouldn’t be my problem. But it is. If a very big traditional ruler dies somewhere, and they want to do an elaborate burial ceremony, they come to me. I have to do it.”

Me, I probably will read that as political survival. To justify corruption, Sylva reached for the same word—“survival”—that Mahmoud Thiam had chosen when he explained why pariah states are willing to deal with the likes of Sam Pa and the Queensway Group. Said Djinnit, the UN’s man in west Africa, called the competition to control political power in the resource states “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Paul Collier talks about the law of “the survival of the fattest” in rentier states.

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Filed under Africa, China, democracy, disease, economics, energy, military, Nigeria, U.N.

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